STEVENS POINT — When we needed him most, as our national dialogue hit rock bottom, we were saved yet again by a Midwestern American hero who rose above the steaming pile of garbage thrust at us by those of small minds and deep pockets.
Just when it seemed like we could sink to no darker depths, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a real American hero, Bob Dylan. As always when it comes to the guy who was born in Duluth, Minnesota, many won’t understand. For us Dylan heads, the response is as it has always been: That’s your problem.
Dylan has been part of the fabric of American culture for most of his 75 years. His gifts have been many, though he probably never intended them to be gifts. That’s Dylan. Whenever we thought we knew him, or he was ours, he would slip away. He was a shape-shifter, a jester, an elusive yet ubiquitous phenomenon of our times.
Those who say they can’t stand him because of his faulty voice or his unfathomable phraseology love him nonetheless, though they don’t know it. Entertainers of virtually every genre have adapted Dylan songs. Public TV once ran a special featuring others doing Dylan. It was two hours long and could have gone on for many more.
But the Nobel Prize recognized him for his powerful wordsmithing and its impact on the world, not his craggy voice. His early folk songs defined a generation. But when called upon to lead the movement songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” helped engender, he declined. When he brought an electric guitar on stage in front of a folk crowd, he was booed. His answer was to create some smashing electric rock albums.
Bob Dylan made it OK to be different at a time when that was a risk. One of my high school friends who loved Dylan was inspired by him to grow his hair and sideburns long. They tried to kick him out of school, but he wouldn’t leave. So the authorities decided to ignore him. When he raised his hand in class to answer a question, he wasn’t called upon. But the act of not recognizing him actually drew more attention. Soon, others were growing out their hair and sideburns.
Yes, it was OK to be different. Who cared if your voice wasn’t great as long as you had something to say? You didn’t have to follow the strictures of a conformist society. You didn’t even have to conform to the rules of the nonconformists with whom you associated. This was of immeasurable importance to the rights of all people, and I’m guessing Dylan knows it to this day. Many who have benefited and are benefiting from this tremendous gift today don’t know it, but Bob Dylan with his wild hair and eccentric ways helped make it easier for them. His thousands of songs will live a long time because many of them are brilliant, but his impact on our free society will endure even longer.
Like other Dylan heads, I’ve been to a few of his shows. Some have, frankly, been terrible. I recall one in which I couldn’t recognize a single song, so muddied was his delivery. Other times, I have been happily surprised by his lucidity.
One concert that will stand out forever came during the tense days after 9/11. It was held on a late October day at the old Brown County Arena. By then, it was obvious that the U.S. had endured an act of war and was soon to engage in one itself.
That night, backed by a superb band, Dylan said almost nothing to the crowd. But from his back pages, he pulled out his old anti-war songs. He wasn’t taking sides, but he was talking to the world when he sang “Masters of War,” as though to say we had learned nothing since “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was sublime.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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